When a new pastor comes to a church, there are always things she thinks need to change. Some of these are truly important. Some of them are pet peeves. (Often it’s not easy to tell the difference between those two, pastors being humans with flaws and blind spots and ego-warped agendas.) Some changes are also simply ways in which the church needs to stay on the move, to continue progressing into faithfulness to Christ’s call on that particular part of His Body.
So how does change happen, and how does a pastor lead that change? For several years now, when faced with particular changes, I’ve relied on a particular Biblical narrative.
In Genesis 33, Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, meet one another for the first time in decades. Their last time together ended with Jacob fleeing for his life after repeatedly swindling his brother and even the twin brothers’ blind father, Isaac. Now, Jacob is convinced that his brother is going to retaliate, that Esau will kill him and perhaps his servants and family too.
Instead, we read, “Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4, cf. this other story). The adult brothers introduce their families and show off their significant possessions, and then Esau suggests the two groups travel together, to which Jacob replies the key verses to my understanding of leading change (vv. 13-14):
My master knows that the children aren’t strong and that I am responsible for the nursing flocks and cattle. If I push them hard for even one day, all of the flocks will die. My master, go on ahead of your servant, but I’ve got to take it easy, going only as fast as the animals in front of me and the children are able to go, until I meet you in Seir.
The takeaway is this: whether the pastor is the shepherd leading the flock, or in some ways a parent leading the family, the pastor must lead at the congregation’s pace. If change is too fast, it will damage the church and harm its people. The lesson of the story is that introducing change too fast is unwise, impatient, and ultimately unloving. See?
Except that’s not what the story is about. At all.
Instead, what we are being shown is that after all Isaac’s years of practicing trickery and deceit, then receiving trickery and deceit; even after this particular day’s experience of deserving retaliation, but being gifted forgiveness instead, Isaac still resorts to his old standby: deceit. We know this because Esau heads down the road, with Jacob having agreed that he will follow . Then Esau travels south, and Jacob heads west, with no intention of traveling with Esau anywhere.
The story I told myself about the story was that it was about parenting and shepherding; the story the story was telling me was about the character of this patriarch, Jacob. It was confirmation bias.
I still have my bias. I still believe in slow, deliberate, thoughtful change rather than rapid change. I still believe that well-conceived processes and systems work better for creating healthy churches and healthy people. I just don’t think it because faithful and holy and loving and skilled shepherd Jacob told me so. And this is freeing.
By being freed of that misinterpretation, I can add to my own picture that sometimes, for some changes, change has to be drastic or quick, perhaps even painful. At times I need to take action and lead others to take action in ways that feel too fast for me. And my sense of discomfort can just as easily be evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit along a particular path as the comfortable feelings that I obviously would prefer.